Across Congo, Freelance Miners Dig In Against Modern Industry

Scenes from the brutal conditions of an artisanal mining camp outside of Likasi, Congo. Known as the negotiante, a man in sunglasses, who diggers say is "snake-hearted" and swindles them out of money for their ore, shows his day's stash. Video by Mbale Yav for the Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 24, 2008

LIKASI, Congo -- In these days of high-tech economic globalization, Innocent Luamba digs for copper and cobalt in the manner of the ancient Romans, by hand.

As world mineral prices soar, the former soldier makes less than $5 on a good day of toiling 20 yards underground, at the literal end of a chain of predatory middlemen, gold-wearing labor bosses and shadowy mineral traders stretching from here to China and India and places he only imagines.

"Things are really obscure," said Luamba, 40, as he rested at a transient miners' camp of sagging orange tents, a common sight across this rolling landscape of tall grass and wildflowers in the southeastern Congolese province of Katanga. "We don't know where it goes or who buys the ore."

Along with an estimated 2 million other people across Congo, Luamba is part of a brutal business known as artisanal mining, which accounts for as much as 90 percent of the country's mineral exports. It is a scrappy, outside-the-law means of making a living, and one increasingly at odds with the modern mining industry that the Congolese government is trying to build as the backbone of a formal economy.

With a years-long civil war mostly over and a democratically elected government in place, major foreign companies such as U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Anvil Mining of Australia and, more recently, Chinese enterprises are pouring billions of dollars into creating modern mechanized mines to tap some of the purest concentrations of copper and cobalt on the planet.

Investment on this scale, many people here contend, gives Congo a shot at transforming the exploitative informal system into a legitimate industry that pays decent wages and fuels development across a nation the size of Western Europe.

At the moment, this future is running up against the anarchic, every-man-for-himself culture that has defined Congo for decades. Arriving at their new concessions, the foreign mining companies' crews are finding thousands of diggers already there, hauling off sacks of ore.

These encounters have led to riots in some cases, accommodation in others. More often, though, the diggers are being chased off the mining sites, fostering a growing militancy among people who feel they have a right to this small portion of their country's vast natural riches.

"We have the privilege to use the land that God gave us," said Sakila Mavu Jackson, chief of a village where many miners live. "We have the right of digging."

Artisanal mining is a fairly recent phenomenon in Congo, where miners for decades were a privileged minority in an impoverished country, enjoying something resembling a middle-class life.

By the 1980s, the mechanized state-owned mining company, Gecamines, was exporting 400,000 tons of copper ore a year, fueling the Congolese economy and the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who plundered its coffers liberally.

The company paid its 40,000 workers a decent salary and a bounty of benefits: free schools, free hospitals, free food and even Friday night socials with free beer. In busy company towns such as this one, senior workers drove home to leafy neighborhoods that resemble small-town America.

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